A few months back, I started making music again. Back in my late teens, I played in a couple of bands, which had both fizzled out around the time I started university. Having recently moved to a new city (Melbourne), I’ve found myself with more time on my hands and way fewer distractions than I had back home in London. This has been pretty awesome in terms of getting a load of creative stuff done and I finally got round to recording some of the songs I’d been half-assedly tinkering with over the past few years.
It feels great to finally have got that stuff out there instead of just storing songs in my head until I’d inevitably lose interest and forget them all a couple of years later. A friend has even offered me a gig and I’m pretty excited about getting back on the horse and playing live again, one small blip aside.
Having moved over to Australia with minimal luggage, I’m short of a fair bit of musical equipment and the thought of recouping it all through going to music stores and sounding people out online brings me out in a cold sweat.
I haven’t set foot in a music shop in a good six years but my abiding memory is that they are The Most Intimidating Places In The World, Ever™. I’m recoiling in horror at the thought of some dude who knows waaay too much about guitars shooting me down with a withering stare as soon as I open my mouth and reveal my embarrassing lack of technical knowledge.
Back in London, I’d been playing a guitar with a missing string for the past two years, just because I couldn’t be bothered to put myself through the inevitable sneering when I visited a music shop to pick up a replacement.
I know this can’t be true for all music stores and there are probably heaps of welcoming, friendly places out there with kind and patient staff. I just haven’t ever had the fortune to visit any of them.
In my experience, music shops are almost always exclusively masculine environments staffed by embittered know-it-alls who treat is as a personal insult that you don’t really know very much at all about the instrument you’re attempting to play. It doesn’t help that all guitar shops also come complete with a customer or staff member totally showing off by playing something really, really hard at breakneck speed.
I taught myself to play guitar when I was 14 and took the whole thing pretty seriously. Buoyed by discovering Riot Grrrl, I’d asked my parents for an electric guitar for Christmas. They said no, thinking fairly understandably that it was a passing fad and, anyway, we had a perfectly good acoustic guitar. Why couldn’t I just play that?
In response, I put myself on a strict practicing schedule to prove them wrong. I’d gone to the music section of a local department store and picked up a dorky "Teach Yourself Guitar" book with a picture of a smiling middle-aged couple in matching polo shirts, holding a guitar on the cover. The (female) cashier totally rolled her eyes and smirked at me, but whatever.
I played for at least 20 minutes every evening and by the time a year had passed, I wasn’t half bad. I’d ignored all the complicated stuff in the book, like fingerpicking, but I was only interested in playing loud, angry punk songs anyway. Passion was more important than technique, right?
The next Christmas rolled around and my parents decided that all my hard work showed I was pretty serious about this guitar thing and bought me a Squier Strat starter kit, which included a little practice amp. Best present EVER. I could start rocking out (with headphones on). All was well until the first time I experienced a broken string.
My family isn’t musical at all and I was a fairly late adopter of the Internet (dial-up, yo) so I headed over to a nearby music shop, armed with half the broken string, ready to receive some guidance.
What I received instead was some fairly withering disdain. “You can’t just buy ONE STRING!” exclaimed the ponytailed sales assistant. “The tone will be ALL WRONG. You have to change ALL OF THE STRINGS, AT LEAST ONCE A MONTH. “
15-year-old me, with limited funds at her disposal balked at the thought of having to buy all those strings. I’d only broken one in six months, anyway! The sales assistant proceeded to give me a thorough dressing-down, before grumbling that I should just bring in the guitar so he could do it for me, as I obviously had no clue.
I meekly returned with the guitar, and watched whilst he changed the string whilst alternately rolling his eyes and scolding me for how grimy my guitar was. He made a big show of cleaning it, tutting. I was feeling pretty stupid by this point, but also relieved –- I’d watched him change the string! From now on, I could just do that myself. I never needed to engage with guitar shop people again, apart from to buy a pack of strings or a lead every now and then. I certainly wasn’t going to ask for advice again.
Was I overreacting? Probably, but I was young and unsure and a bit of friendliness wouldn’t have gone amiss. The fact that this happened over 10 years ago and I’m still reluctant to go into a music shop shows that that stuff can have a lasting effect. It’s scary enough for a teenage girl to pick up a "boys" instrument for which there playing will constantly be judged in terms of their gender without assholes in music shops patronizing them for their lack of knowledge rather than offering support and guidance.
If I could go back in time, I’d give 15-year-old me a big hi-five for having the balls to start playing guitar and write songs in the first place.
Women in bands experience all kinds of annoying crap all time. I remember turning up to play a gig and on getting my guitar tuner out, having it whisked out of my hands by a guy in one of the other bands and him proceeding to tune my guitar for me without even asking. It’s just assumed that you know jack about your instrument.
My sister had a similarly dispiriting guitar shop experience when she was a kid, where she was mocked for having ever-so-slightly long fingernails and it pretty much put her off playing.
This is why we’ve still got to look out for each other. I picked up an amazing zine the other day on how to buy second hand guitars and amps made especially for women who aren’t feeling too confident about negotiating the situation, which teenage me would have absolutely killed for. Young women navigating the thorny world of rock music need support.
Anyway, I can’t put off buying a new capo or plectrum forever. And when I next step into a music store, you’d better believe I’m invoking some of 15-year-old me’s bravery. Oh, and the whole “You have to change every string, every time you break one” thing? Total crap. It just ain’t punk.
Have you had a similar experience? Or can you recommend any amazing music shops with friendly staff? (Bonus points if they’re in Melbourne.)